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The Power of Emotion in Therapy

How to Harness this Great Motivator


By Susan Johnson

Neuroscientists have recently established that emotion is the prime organizing force
shaping how we cope with challenges. Now psychotherapists are learning how to work
with emotion, rather than trying to control it.

God guard me from those thoughts men think in the mind alone. He that sings a lasting
song, thinks in a marrow-bone.W. B. Yeats.
Mike leans forward, and in a low, intense voice, says, Look. It wasnt my idea to see a
couples therapist. And I hear that this therapy you do is all about emotions. Well, that
about counts me out. First, I dont have them the way she does. He points to his wife,
Emma, whos staring angrily at the floor. Second, I dont want to have them
or talk about them. I work through problems by just staying cool. I hold on tight and use
my little gray cells. He taps his head and sets his jaw. Just tell me whats wrong with us
why shes so upset all the timeand Ill fix the problem. Just tell me what to say, and
Ill say it. We were just fine until we started to have kids and she started complaining all
the time. All this spewing of feelings just makes things worse. Its stupid. He turns
away from me, and the silence is filled with the sound of his wifes weeping.
The irony of this type of drama never fails to intrigue me. In one of the most emotional
scenarios evera couple trying to talk about their distressed relationshipheres a
partner insisting that the solution to distress is to ignore the emotion! Worse still, Im
getting emotional! This client is upsetting me. I breathe in and get my balance. After all, I
remind myself, what hes saying is so normal.
Mental health professionals would agree with him. In fact, I agree with him, to some
extent. Venting strong, negative emotionusually called catharsisis nearly always a
dead end. More than that, most of us are wary of strong emotions. Emotions have
traditionally been seen, by philosophers like Ren Descartes, for example, as part of our
primitive animal nature and, therefore, not to be trusted. Reason, by contrast, has long

been thought to reflect our higher spiritual self. In neuroscientific terms, the implication
is that were at our best when we live out of our prefrontal cortex and leave our limbic
brain behind. More specifically, emotion is often associated with disorganization and
loss of control. As Latin author Publilius Syrus, known for his maxims, wrote in the first
century B.C., The sage will rule his feelings; the fool will be their slave.
All this is now changing. Were in the midst of a revolution, as far as emotion is
concerned. Antonio Damasio, one of the great scholars in the emotion field, notes that
this revolution began in the 1990s, when the inherent irrationality of emotion began to
be questioned. Were now at the point where emotionthe apparently crazy,
irresponsible sleazebag of the psychehas been identified as an inherently organizing
force, essential to survival and the foundation of key elements of civilized society, such
as moral judgment and empathy. Emotion shapes and organizes our experience and
our connection to others. It readies us for specific actions; its the great motivator. As the
Latin root of emotion, movere(to move) suggests, strong feelings literally move us to
approach, to avoid, to act.
Way before this emotion revolution, many therapists accepted that there was more to
emotion than simply learning to control itthat directly working with emotion was
somehow central to the task of therapy. We recognized that old Publilius was wrong: its
not always good to control your emotions rigidly, and its not always foolish to listen to
them! The idea that some kind of corrective emotional experience was necessary for
any kind of effective psychotherapy was repeated endlessly, at least in the more
dynamic psychotherapies. But exactly what the key elements of this experience are and
how we get there with our clients remains difficult to define.
Even with this more emotion-friendly attitude, it seems to me that, as a field, we still tend
to err on the side of bypassing or containing emotion, rather than actively using it for
change. For many years, this seemed to be particularly true in couples and family
therapies. It makes sense, in that emotions are especially intense in difficult interactions
with loved ones. Therapists have to deal with powerful attachment dramas, which
unleash rivers of emotion in their clients, and their own emotional issues can be
triggered as they watch these dramas unfold. Such therapists had better know their
rivers, and how to swim! Otherwise, its safer to sit on the bank, hold on to the traditional
distrust of emotion, and try to create change through purely cognitive or behavioral
means. But these interventions may not be sufficient, given that emotion and emotional
signals are the central organizing forces in intimate relationships and that changes in
emotional responses, such as increased love and tenderness, are hard to generate if we
dont work with emotion directly.
For many of us, formal training doesnt help much here. How many professional training
programseven now, when we know so much more about the significance of emotion
systematically teach how to understand emotion or to engage and use it to create
transformation in clients? In clinical psychology programs, young therapists mostly seem

to learn how to teach clients techniques for moderating out-of-control emotions. Even if
we look at a master therapist who explicitly values emotion, such as the great Carl
Rogers, we see less direct focus on emotion than we might expect. So it makes sense
that many of us remain a little intimidated or off-balance in the face of the compelling
experience of emotion. Its difficult for us to embrace it as a positive force and use it as a
powerful tool for shaping growth in our clients.

Research tells us that when therapists help clients deepen


emotion, clients attain better outcomes in therapy. If we can
become comfortable with the power of emotion, it becomes the
therapists greatest ally, rather than a disruptive force to be
contained.
Its self-evident that emotion is captivating. If we can tune in to and address clients
deeper emotions, the therapy process is at once tangibly relevant, and they engage.
Research tells us that when therapists help clients deepen emotion, clients attain better
outcomes in therapy. When we shape powerful emotional interactions in Emotionally
Focused Therapy (EFT), we see seismic shifts in the core interactions that define
lifetime relationships. Emotion takes us to the heart of the matter. New emotional
mosaics create new perceptions and meanings. Even more important, they move us
psychologically and physiologicallyinto new response modes. If we can become
comfortable with the power of emotion, it becomes the therapists greatest ally, rather
than a disruptive force to be contained.
Even if we view emotions as essentially problematic, damping them down or
circumventing them is no small task. Therapists often try to defuse negative emotion
with such techniques as structured skill-building exercises, but the emotion usually
seeps through and takes over anyway. Weve all seen empathy or positive
communication exercises miss the mark when theyre done with flat facial expressions
or hostile tones. Physiologically, the attempt to suppress emotion is hard work, often
resulting in increasing arousal. James Gross, a key researcher in affect regulation, finds
that interactional partners pick up on this increased arousal and become more agitated
themselves. We can all relate to the argument that goes: Youre mad, No, Im not
(said with clenched teeth), Yes, you are; I dont even want to talk to you. But perhaps
even more important than the effort required to regulate emotion is the fact that new,
positive ideas and actions that emerge in session remain peripheral, unless we feel their
force and connect with them on an emotional level.
What do therapists need to know to harness the power of emotion in therapy sessions? I
remember when I was an idealistic young therapist starting to work with couples and
suddenly coming face-to-face with such tsunami-like emotion that, to be able to stay
with and focus on the wave, I needed to see the order, the patterned structure of this

experience. As I came to understand emotion better, I gained understanding about the


way in which key emotions were constructed and processed. I became less intimidated
and learned to embrace and ride the wave, using its force to create change. By learning
about emotion, I was able to help clients order these experiences and use them
positively in their lives.
I could do all of this because Id been given a great map: I had Attachment Theorya
systematic framework for personality and relationship developmentas a guide. This
theory of self in relation to others places emotion and its regulation front and center.
John Bowlby, its father, saw emotion as the great communicator. It gives us a felt
sense of our own physiologyour gut wisdom. It connects us with our preferences
and longings. It links us to others with lightning speed. For Bowlby, the dance of
connection and disconnection with loved ones plays a pivotal role in defining who we
are; emotion is the music that organizes this dance and gives it rhythm and shape.
In the case of Mike and Emma, I feel more grounded and calm when I can track exactly
how Mike regulates his emotions: he dismisses and denies them. This affects how he
frames his signals to his partnera process that elicits particular negative emotional
responses from her. These responses then confirm his need to hold on tight and deny
his emotions. Emotions arent just inner sensations and impulses; theyre social scripts.
Self and system are molded in an ongoing feedback loop, which neither Mike nor his
partner are aware of. The attachment framework sets out the deep logic of seemingly
unpredictable emotions and tells me how and why Mike and Emma deal with them the
way they do. There are only so many ways to deal with emotional starvation and the
universal experiences of rejection and abandonment. When I know the territory, I feel
confident enough to explore the terrain.
What Is Emotion, Anyway?
Science suggests that emotion is anything but primitive and unpredictable. Its a
complex, exquisitely efficient information-processing system, designed to organize
behavior rapidly in the interests of survival. Its an internal signaling system, telling us
about what matters in the flood of stimuli that bombard us and tuning us in to our own
inner needs. Research with brain-damaged subjects shows that without emotion to
guide us, we cant make even the most elementary of decisions; were bereft of
preferences and have nothing to move us toward one option rather than another.
Emotional signals, especially nonverbal, such as facial expression and tone of voice,
communicate our intentions to others. Our brain takes just 100 milliseconds to detect
and process the smallest change in a human face and just 300 milliseconds to mirror
this change in our own body, so we literally feel anothers emotion. The fact that we
can rapidly read intentions and coordinate actions has offered our species a huge
evolutionary advantage. The ability to read six basic emotional expressions and assign
the same meaning to these expressions is universal.

Theres a consensus among experts that these basic emotions are anger, sadness, joy,
surprise, shame, and fear. In anger, for example, the stare becomes fixed, eyes widen,
and the brows contract; the lips compress and the body tenses. The impulse is to
mobilize and move toward the object of the emotional response, so as to take control or
eliminate the obstacle. When a client sits in front of me and tells me she has no idea
how she feels, it helps me immeasurably to know that, in all probability, shes feeling her
own version of one of these six core emotions.
We have evidence that just naming emotionsliterally putting feelings into words
seems to calm down amygdala activity in the brains of subjects viewing negative
emotional images or faces. So it may help us trust emotion and see it as a positive tool
in psychotherapy if we can keep in mind the elements that make up an emotional
experience. First, theres a cue from the environment. This is followed by an initial
general perception (such as bad) and orientation to this cue and physical arousal. The
meaning of cues and sensations is further evaluated in a more reflective cognitive
appraisal. All these things prime a movea compelling action tendency. These
reactions all happen inside the skin, but they dont stay there. Emotion isnt silent or
hidden.
The signals that accompany this process create what psychologist and author Daniel
Goleman calls a neural duet with others. Much of the time, this process is implicit and
instantaneous. Mike turns away when Emma asks him about his day; Emma picks up
this cue and her brain frames it as bad and dangerous; Emmas heart rate speeds
up, and her body tenses; she scans for what this means and hits on Im losing him, he
doesnt want me; she moves closer to Mike and, in an intense voice, says, You never
want to talk to me, anyhow; Mike hears anger, so he closes down and shuts her out.
Once the cue has occurred, all these elements are shaped by Emma. Part of my job as
an experiential therapist is to tune in to just how she does this. In this distressed
relationship, she constantly monitors Mikes responses and is exquisitely sensitive to
any potential rejection from him. At the first sign of rejection, her mammalian brain lights
up in alarm. Neuroscience researcher Jaak Panksepp calls this alarm primal panic.
The neural circuit used here is the accelerated pathway through the thalamus to the
amygdala; information about the responsiveness of an attachment figure has enormous
survival significance, so the slower route through the reflective prefrontal cortex is
bypassed. The meaning Emma makes herethat shes unloved and Mike is cold and
meanreflects experiences that remind her how dangerous it can be to reach for
others. She moves close to lessen her sense of threat and pushes for a different
response from her husband. He sees her as intrusive. When he moves away, he
confirms her deeper fears, and so helps to shape her ongoing experience.
Whats missing from this version of Emmas emotional drama is that she tries to regulate
her emotion. Regulation isnt something we do to emotion; its just part of the process.
As Dutch psychologist Nico Frijda puts it, were continually shifting the balance between

letting go and restraint. We have reactions to our initial sense of whats going on, and
we try to cope with them as theyre happening. This translates into different levels of
emotional experience.
At the end of this drama, which takes six seconds at most, Emma explodes in reactive
anger. If we were to stop the frame at her first visceral response, wed call her
emotion fear. Her overt anger is a response to her sense of threat. An emotionally
focused therapist would see her anger as secondary and the fear as her primary
emotion. If she could slow down and pay attention to her fear, her action tendency might
be different; for example, she might ask for reassurance. She could also, conceivably,
have reacted to her own fear by moving into numbing, especially if shed accessed
thoughts of hopelessness and helplessness as part of her search for meaning. But she
doesnt register her fear. When she talks about this drama in my office, she looks angry
and blames her husband for his coldness.
Not only do we have different levels of emotion, we have reflexive emotionsemotions
about our emotions. Clients often have deep anxiety about the catastrophe that awaits if
they stay with their primary softer emotions, like sadness or fear. The general list of
negative expectations can be framed as responses to the open-ended sentence, If I
become open and vulnerable, Ill find that Im. . . . The answerswhich can be
summarized as the 4 Dsare: defective, disintegrating, drowning, or dismissed. This
list seems to cut across gender, class, and culture.
Clients express these fears as follows: If I feel my softer, deeper emotions, this means
that Im weak or inadequate; others will see me this way and reject me; If I feel this, Ill
become more and more distressed; Ill lose myself; If I feel this, the emotion will never
go awayitll go on forever, and Ill drown in it; If I feel this, no one will respond or be
there to save me.
I used to see clients expression of this kind of pain as a metaphor, but its more than
this. Emotions are of the flesh, and they sear the flesh, said Frijda. Until recently, the
parallels between emotional pain, such as rejection, and physical pain, like burning your
arm, were thought to be purely because of shared psychological distress. Now its clear
that theres a neural overlap in the way we process and experience social and physical
pain. Tylenol can reduce hurt feelings, and social support can lessen physical pain. As
predicted by Attachment Theory, emotional isolation and the helplessness associated
with it seem to be key features of this emotional pain. Our need for connection with
others has shaped our neural makeup and the structure of our emotional life.
Once we can name implicit core emotions, track them through our clients nonverbal
communication, and thus create an integrated emotional experience by identifying all
the elements and placing them in an attachment context, it isnt difficult to work with
clients who are usually inexpressive or unaware of their feelings. When clients can touch
their core emotions, implicit cognitions about the self, others, and the nature of life

emerge and become available for review. For example, withdrawn partners often share
deeply held negative beliefs about the inadequacy of the self. So we can understand the
nature of emotion, its key elements, its different levels, and how it connects to action,
cognition, and interaction, but sometimes being around strong emotions feels just plain
dangerous.

When Does Emotion Go Wrong?


When we can access, regulate, and integrate our emotions, they provide an essential
guide to living. But emotions, like everything, can go wrong. Theyre like best guesses
as to what we should do in a situation, not surefire winning solutions, says Stanford
psychologist James Gross, whos done extensive research on emotional regulation.
Demystifying the problems that occur with emotion can again increase confidence that
emotion shouldnt be feared by clients or therapists.
For better and for worse, strong emotion tends to restrict our range of attention. A
negative emotion, like fear, can elicit irrational beliefs. It can flood us so that we cant
think straight or only think in constricted, black-and-white terms. One metaphor thats
now taking hold among my neuroscience colleagues is that the brain is a ruthless
capitalist, which budgets its resources. Being afraid and trying to calm yourself is
expensive in terms of resources like blood and glucose; areas specializing in cognitive
tasks, like the prefrontal cortex, get starved.
In simple terms, therapists and clients describe problems in terms of too much emotion,
too little emotion, or conflicting emotions. Emotions can be overwhelming and create
feelings of disorganization or chaos. Some clients can connect with different elements of
their emotional experience, but cant order them into an integrated coherent whole; they
use words like fragmented and confused to describe their inner life. Traumatized clients
speak of being hijacked by all-encompassing emotional experiences in traumatic
flashbacks. Other clients report feeling flat or cut off from any clear sense of their
experience; their inability to formulate or name emotions leaves them aimless, without a
compass to steer toward what they want or need. Many clients express conflicting
emotions. In couples therapy, they speak of longing to be close and fearing to be close.
In individual therapy, they may deny the fear laid out in a previous session, shame at
vulnerability now blocking the recognition of this emotion. Specific strategies for
regulating emotion can be problematic as well, especially if they become habitual and
applied across new contexts. Therapists working with trauma survivors need to validate
that, at certain times, its functional and necessary to compartmentalize or even dismiss
emotion. Alan, an Iraq War veteran, tells me, for example, When youre landing a
helicopter under fire, you just focus on the IAI [Immediate Action Item], coping. Get the
chopper down. Never mind your fear. Just step past it and focus on the task. This saves
Alans life on deployment. But if suppressing emotion becomes a general strategy, it

turns into a trap. Numbing is the most significant predictor of negative outcome in the
treatment of PTSD. It also sends Alans marriage into a spiral of distress that further
isolates and overwhelms him.
A clear model of emotional health helps therapists find their way when these emotional
processing problems occur. As a Rogerian and an attachment-oriented therapist, I have
five goals for my clients. I want to help them: tune in to their deeper emotions and listen
to them; order their emotional experience and make it into a coherent whole; keep their
emotional balance so they can trust their experience and follow their inner sense of what
they need; send clear, congruent emotional signals to others about these needs; and
reciprocally respond to the needs of others. Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield speaks to
these goals in his book The Wise Heart, where he suggests, We can let ourselves be
carried by the river of feelingbecause we know how to swim.
We all encounter negative experiences and emotions; thats simply how life is. But
humans have an invaluable survival adaptation: when were emotionally stressed and
our prefrontal cortex is faint from hunger, we share burdens and turn to others for
emotional and cognitive sustenance. When we can learnoften with the help of another
whos a safe haven for us and can offer an extra prefrontal cortexthat negative
emotions are workable, that we can understand them and find meaningful ways to cope
with and embrace them, they lose much of their toxicity. They can become, in fact, a
source of aliveness.
Countless studies on infant and adult attachment suggest that our close encounters with
loved ones are where most of us attain and learn to hold on to our emotional balance.
This echoes ancient Buddhist wisdom encouraging practitioners to meditate on the
faces of loved ones or on the experience of being held as a way of finding their balance
in an emotional storm. Secure connection with an attachment figure, or a surrogate
attachment figurea therapist, for exampleis the natural place to learn to regulate our
emotional responses. Its when we cant reach for others or access inner models of
supportive others in our minds that we resort to more problematic regulation strategies,
such as numbing out, blowing up, or rigidly trying to control our inner world and loved
ones. The attachment perspective allows a therapist to see past these secondary
strategies to discern deeper, more primary emotionsthe desperate loneliness and
longing for contact behind apparently hostile or dismissing responses, or the sense of
rejection and helplessness underlying a withdrawn persons apparent apathy. The
attachment perspective asserts what neuroscientists like James Coan are discovering in
their MRIs: regulating emotions with others is a baseline survival strategy for humans.
Effective self-regulation, behavioral psychologys mantra for years, appears to be
dependent on and emerge from positive social connection.
Emotion in the Consulting Room

So what are the main messages of this new revolution in emotion for therapists? The
first message is that emotion matters. When its dismissed or sidelined, well often fail to
engage our clients optimally or make the tasks of therapy personally relevant, and thus
limit positive outcomes. The second message is that if we know the structure and
function of emotion, as well as how its shaped in human relationships, we can use its
power to create lasting change in a deliberate, effective manner. This is true in individual
and couples therapy, and for each, I suggest that the old adage that significant change
requires a corrective emotional experience applies. But specifically what have
experiential therapists learned from the science of emotion about dealing with emotion
and creating such corrective experiences?
Nearly all therapy models now agree on the necessity of creating safety in session, if for
no other reason than to facilitate our clients open exploration of their problems. This
safety is particularly essential if a client is to engage with and explore difficult emotions.
For an attachment-oriented therapist, it has a specific meaning: in the session,
therapists have to be not just kind or empathic, but truly emotionally present and
responsive. This creates a holding environment, where clients can risk engaging in what
Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt Therapy, called the safe adventure of therapy. Part of
a therapeutic presence relates to transparency, the therapists willingness to be seen as
a person who can be unsure or confused at times, rather than an all-knowing expert. If
Im emotionally engaged, my mirror neurons will help me check into my own feelings to
understand those of a client.
In the treatment of problems such as depression, across different models,
collaborative, emotionally oriented interventions have been found to predict positive
outcome better than more expert-oriented, coaching interventions.Collaborative means
that therapists join clients wherever they arein their reactive rage or numb indifference
and find a way to validate these responses before exploring any unopened doors or
alternative angles. Rogers told us long ago that the more we accept ourselves and feel
accepted, the more were open to change. Often, this means that therapists need to
resist the pressure to fix problems instantly, and find the inherent logic in how their client
is feeling and acting in the moment.
Attachment and neuroscience emphasize the impact of gesture, gaze, facial expression,
and tone of voice on the emotional reality of someone whos anxious and in pain, and
whos sought the counsel of someone presumably wiser. The use of a soft, soothing
voice on the part of the therapist makes sense here. Emotion is fast, so it makes sense
to slow down if we want to help clients process emotion in new ways. Repeating simple,
emotional terms that clients have found for themselves seems to foster the exploration
of hot experiences. This can be summarized, for those who like acronyms, as using
the 3 Ssslow, soft, simpleto create a fourth Semotional safety. If a client is
overwhelmed, for example, in a traumatic flashback, this kind of presence and empathic
reflection grounds him and helps him keep a working distance from his emotion.

Focused empathic reflection soothes clients; they feel seen and heard. In EFT couples
research, the initial level of a couples distress doesnt significantly predict outcome, but
the level of engagement in the treatment process does. The kind of alliance described
above fosters this engagement with the therapist and the tasks he or she presents.
In the case of Mike and Emma, I might say to Mike softly and slowly, I hear how much
you want to fix this problem, Mike. It must be so hard to be turning on those gray cells
and not to be able to fix this. Its hard to keep your balance. So you just try to hold on
really tight when Emma gets upset with you, to keep some control here, yes? After a
while, I begin to ask questions about just exactly how he holds on tight and what this
feels like. This image offers me an emotional handle, a way into Mikes experience of
himself and his relationship.
An Emotional Focus
Experiential therapists learn to use emotion as a touchstoneto stay with, focus on, and
return to emotional experience, constantly tracking emotional responses and developing
them further. Creating a corrective emotional experience begins with this process. To
stay here, rather than to move on to focus on modifying behaviors, creating insight, or
offering advice requires a willingness to be relentless in guiding clients past tangential
issues. This is infinitely easier if you have a basic knowledge of the science discussed
above and a systematic way of working thats been empirically validated with different
kinds of clients. All this offers a secure base for intervention, but it still isnt easy to keep
reflecting and repeating the themes that show up in each clients emotional responses
until the ordered patterns in experiencing and interacting emerge and their
consequences become clear. Empathic reflection is the primary tool here, though its
versatility is often missed. In one stroke, a tuned-in reflection can calm clients and build
safety, focus the therapy process, and slow down the flow of experience and interaction
so that grasping key elements is possible. It helps order and distill emotion into
something explicit and workable. As this process is repeated and tentative fresh
meanings emerge, often in the form of evocative images, a new, coherent picture of
inner and interpersonal realities is formed. Fragmented and unformulated elements are
integrated into a new whole, which opens up new possibilities for action.
So with Mike and Emma, the therapist might say, Can you help me, Mike? Youre
saying that you want some magic words that would stop Emma from being upset? And
youre worried that if we talk about emotions, itll be just like the arguments you have at
home? Mike nods emphatically. Youre going to hear Emma complaining about you,
saying shes disappointed with the relationship, while you dont even understand whats
really wrong here? Talking about this is almost like a danger zone you dont know the
way out of. So you get frustrated and just want all this fixed. And when you cant fix it . . .
?

I leave, Mike says. I go for a walk. Whats the point of standing there arguing? I just
shut the door on her and go for a walk. Theres nothing else to do. Understanding
emotions in the context of attachment, its easy to anticipate that Emma experiences
Mikes withdrawal as a sign of abandonment and then protests his distance by further
complaining and criticizing. Indeed, she now adds, Right, and Im all alone in the house
upset. You just walk away like I dont matter. I hate feeling so hurt all the time. I spew. I
cant let you just walk away.
The therapist might reflect the whole emotional drama by saying, And the more you turn
away, Mike, to try to stop the upset, the more you feel alone, Emma? You end up
spewing words to get him to turn around and not leave you? This loop has kind of taken
over. Its painful for both of you.
Experiential therapists would be careful to validate and normalize Emmas hurt so that
shell continue to explore and own it. Hurt feelings have been identified as a combination
of reactive anger, sadness over loss, and fear of abandonment and rejection.
Attachment theory predicts that Emmas critical pursuit is fueled by anxiety and a sense
of lost connection with her partner. This knowledge guides the therapist as he or she
reads Emmas emotional cues. As Emma opens up to her emotions, she moves past
her rigid, angry stance into deeper emotions of sadness and bewilderment, and begins
to tell Mike about her loneliness. The expression of new emotions then evokes new
responses. Mike sees her sadness and feels relief and compassionas its happening,
in the present
Therapies that privilege emotion, such as EFT and Accelerated Experiential-Dynamic
Psychotherapy, state that the most powerful way to work with emotion is in the present
moment, as its happening and being encoded in the neurons and synapses. Working
with emotion from the bottom up, as its being shaped, makes for a vivid encounter with
key emotional responses. Clients usually start a session by giving a cognitive account of
their feelings or going over past emotional stories. But to access the true power of
working with emotion, the therapist must bring pivotal emotional moments and
responses into the session. This creates an intense spotlight on process, the specific
way emotion is created, shaped, and regulated.
Mostly, we act as if emotions simply happen to us; we dont see how we shape our own
experience and induce negative responses from others. Viewing experience as an
active construction is empowering. Clients are then able to face the ironic fact that their
habitual ways of dealing with difficult emotionways that may have gotten them through
many dark nights of the soulnow trap them and create their ongoing pain.
So I ask Mike questions that help him tune in to his own emotional processing. Mike,
right here, right now, Emma is telling you that shes angry and that the moment that
really triggers her is when you turn and walk away. Whats happening for you as you
hear this?

Thats just what she did yesterday, he replies, and offers a theory that all women get
angry for very little reason.
I try again: Right now, how do you feel when she says, You just walk away, in an angry
voice? Mike just shakes his head. He begins, I dont knowdont know which way is
up herelost my balance.
I lean in and ask, Can you feel that sense of being off-balance right now? He nods
again. What does it feel like?
He slumps back in his chair and says, Like Im lost in space. My world is falling apart
and I dont know what to do. He gives a long sigh.
Many therapists who are comfortable going to the leading edge of a clients emotions
will go one small step further and make small additions or interpretations, such as,
Falling, losing direction, no balancethat sounds very hard, scary even. If Mike
accepts the inference and allows himself to touch his fear, he might reply, Yes. Im
scared. Were falling apart. So I run away. What else is there to do?
By staying focused on Mikes experience and continually piecing it together in vivid and
specific language, the therapist helps him create a felt sense of his experience and
expand it. Continual validation of his experience and reflective summaries allow him to
stay engaged with, but not be overwhelmed by, his emotions. He can begin to pay
attention to Emmas messages about how his distancing affects her, and both partners
can see how they generate the demandwithdraw dance, which triggers their distress.
Once difficult emotions become clear and workable, clients can better hear and
empathize with the other partner. They begin to own their problematic emotions, move
past surface responses into deeper concerns, and take a metaperspective on inner
processing and interpersonal responses. But this is only the first stage in personal and
relationship change.

New Emotions, New Signals, New Steps


Emotionally focused therapists have to help clients create positive patterns of effective
emotional regulation and response. These patterns build a sense of efficacy and foster
positive cycles of emotional responsiveness, which shape secure bonds with others.
These, in turn, reinforce the effective regulation of emotion. Moving into deeply felt
vulnerabilities and congruently sharing them with a trusted therapist or loved one leads
naturally to a new awareness of heartfelt emotional needs. This is the first crucial step to
meeting these needs in a positive manner.

In couples therapy, the open, congruent expression of such needs tends to touch and
move the other partner, evoking empathy and increased responsiveness. To deepen
emotion, therapists can reflect back on and repeat the emotional images and phrases a
client has used all through therapy, carefully eliciting the deeply felt elements of an
emotion to create a cognitively coherent yet bodily experienced reality. When this core
emotion is owned and integrated, it changes a clients sense of self and engagement
with others. After about a dozen sessions of couples therapy, Mike is able to reach for
his wife with a new openness and clarity.
He begins, I know Ive shut you out. But its all I knew how to do. When we get into our
fights, I feel so lost [initial perception]. I get all spacey and confused [body response]. Id
tell myself that youd never loved meme with my grade-12 education. I just wasnt
good enough for you [catastrophic meaning]. So Id run [action tendency]. Now, I dont
want to hold on for dear life every time youre angry, but I want you to stop pushing so
hard. Give me a break. I dont want you to feel alone. I want to learn to be with you. I
need you close to me.
Mikes longings and needs are now clear, and he reaches for Emma in a way that
triggers a reciprocal openness. These fully felt emotional moments and interactions
release a torrent of positive feelings and new ways of seeing. A new music of positive
emotionssurprise and joybegins to play. New vistas of safe connection to ones own
experience and to others open up. More coherent emotions lead to more coherent
messages to others and more organized, effective action. As the proponents of Positive
Psychology suggest, positive emotion has a broadening and building effect on the
human psyche.
A Corrective Emotional Experience
Just as we can now unpack the elements of emotional experience, maybe we can
unpack this age-old phrase and try to capture the essence of change. Corrective,
emotion researchers remind us, doesnt mean that older experience is erased or
suppressed. The emotional system doesnt allow data to be removed or placed to one
side easily because nature favors false positives over false negatives where matters of
survival are at stake. But old neural networks can be added to or even overwritten. So
theres no need to get rid of negative emotions; rather, we should try to expand them.
When reactive anger is validated and placed in context, the threat thats a vital part of
that anger comes to the forefront, and this awareness changes how the anger is
experienced and expressed. This sense of threat, or any primary emotion, is most easily
discovered, distilled, and made into an integrated whole within an emotionally
congruent, accepting therapeutic relationship. This sense of safety is necessary for a
corrective experience, but its not enough.
For a corrective experience to occur, we must engage with and attend to our emotions in
new ways and on deeper levels. I remember telling my therapist that, in spite of flying

constantly, I was still somewhat afraid. We explored this, going moment by moment
through my experience of flying and ordering the elements so that the structure of this
experience became clear. Suddenly, we both realized that I was using so many
techniques to deal with being on the plane that I was never actually present enough to
experience anything new! My extensive coping mechanisms had become the problem.
Imagine my surprise when I actually sat on a plane, heard my therapists voice in my
head telling me to just be present, and found that I liked roaring into the air and floating
off to new places! Part of correction is also the creation of new meanings. Flying
became a way to explore my universe, rather than a near-death experience to be
survived.
Corrective experience redefines the experiencer. I became someone who could get
used to flying and felt able to fly. With a new sense of mastery comes new emotions; in
this case, exhilaration. New action tendencies follow. I joyfully signed up for a trip that
included many flights on small planes through foreign lands!
Corrective also implies that the emotional messages I send to others, as well as their
impact, will evolve and change as theyre received and reciprocated. As Emma
becomes more empathic, her acceptance acts as an antidote to Mikes acknowledged
sense of failure, especially when he directly shares these feelings and takes in her
tender acceptance. As Mike feels less lost and overwhelmed in his interactions with his
wife, he can tolerate her expressions of disappointment and tune in to her hurt. She
accesses her longing and asks for comfort. As he responds, they create powerful
bonding interactions. Their new safe-haven connection will continue to reshape not only
their old habits of defensive withdrawal and reactive criticism, but also their vigilance for
potential threat.
An emotionally corrective experience changes more than how emotions are dealt with
(for example, whether theyre suppressed or reframed): it changes how emotional stimuli
are perceived. More-secure lovers not only cope more effectively with hurt and anxiety,
but perceive cues as less hurtful, in their relationship and in the world. Jim Coan, who
uses fMRI scans to study the impact of attachment in the brain, has shown that holding
the hand of a loved and dependable partner is a safety cue that changes how the brain
perceives and encodes threats, like the threat of electric shock, even lessening the
amount of pain such a shock induces.
A corrective emotional experience has been formulated as resulting from new insights,
but cognitive insight is only one part of change. Novelist Arnold Bennetts comment is
pertinent here: There can be no knowledge without emotion. We may be aware of a
truth, yet until we have felt its force, it is not ours. Pivotal, small changes in a living
system, such as a person or a relationship, can engender radical qualitative shifts, as
when ice suddenly hits 32 degrees Fahrenheit and becomes water. A significant shift in
a leading or organizing element in a systemand primary emotion is such an element
can reorganize the whole system relatively abruptly.

Were in the midst of a revolution in our relationship to emotion. The idea that emotion
isnt the poor cousin to reason but a higher order of intelligence has been around for
decades, but now the evidence for this assertion is clear. As a result of this change of
perspective and the new understanding of the nature of emotion, therapists can more
deliberately use these powerful, bone-deep responses to transform their clients lives
and relationships. Its time to see emotion for what it is: not a nebulous force to be
minimized and mistrusted, but the therapists greatest ally in the creation of lasting
change.
Susan Johnson, Ed.D., professor of clinical psychology, is one of the developers of
Emotionally Focused Therapy, one of the most empirically validated approaches to
couples work. Shes the director of the Ottawa Couple and Family Institute and the
International Center for Excellence in EFT.